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Community Devastated By Lilac Fire Nearly Back To Normal One Year Later

The top photo is the destruction left by the Lilac Fire days after it hit the...

Credit: Matt Hoffman/KPBS

Above: The top photo is the destruction left by the Lilac Fire days after it hit the Rancho Monserate Country Club in Fallbrook on Dec. 11, 2017. The bottom photo is what the country club looks like now, with many of the mobile homes replaced, Dec. 7, 2018.

More than 70 mobile homes were overtaken by the Lilac Fire last December at the Rancho Monserate Country Club in Fallbrook.

Ruth Harris has lived there since 2012, she had seen fires in the area before and did not think much about being evacuated last year.

"My thought process a year ago basically was, 'we’ll probably have to go stay at the beach a few days because we don’t have any electricity — it’s going to go up and around us,'" Harris said. "So that’s what we grabbed. A couple bags of clothes, pajamas and that’s it."

Harris would find out hours later that her home had been completely engulfed by flames.

"It made me physically ill the first time I saw it," Harris said. "It’s a sinking feeling. It’s a feeling of just, of what are you going to do now? Everything that you had was there, and it’s gone. It’s still hard."

Harris said she lost items in the fire that were irreplaceable.

"Family heirlooms," she said. "My dad was a cabinet maker. So half my furniture was made by my dad, it’s all gone. You can’t replace those... It’s those things that made you feel home. Those are the things that I miss. Those things that were given to us or made by family members or handed down. My great-great-grandmother’s kitchen things that I had. My great-great-great-grandmothers sewing chair, it’s gone but I remember it."

Reported by Roland Lizarondo

RELATED: FEMA Disaster Relief Center Opens To Help Lilac Fire Victims

Nearly everything Harris owned was destroyed in the fire, but she was able to salvage a couple items.

"The green tractor back there for the kids we kept that, it kind of melted but they love it — the grandkids. My galvanized buckets upfront, I kept those as a reminder. And then I’ve got one Christmas ornament. We hadn’t put up our Christmas tree yet, we were going to do it that weekend."

The Rancho Monserate Country Club missed it’s popular Christmas party last year because of the fire. This year the party is sold-out.

"They want to be here," said Rancho Monserate Homeowners Association President Carol Raia. "I mean, it’s the biggest party of the year."

Harris said it was the sense of community that helped her rebuild her life at Rancho Monserate.

"That what we do — that’s normal," she said while thinking off all the parties thrown at the club.

Jan Carver lives at the country club and helped evacuate residents last year during the fire.

"I looked out, jumped out of this little car and just started running around to the top because we have a lot of elderly people who don’t have transportation and can’t get out," Carver said last year in December after being evacuated.

While helping people get out, Carver had her car covered in red flame retardant. Today, she and others are able to look back on the fire and laugh about the little things.

"I snuck in the next morning and drove around and got my jewelry out," Carver said. "I said, 'Carol I’m in the park! She said, Oh my diamonds were left on the,' I’m on it."

"I knew it wouldn’t get another one if that disappeared," Raia said laughing.

For Harris, getting her life back to normal has not been easy.

"You’re used to going to this cupboard to grab this," Harris said. "I still, it’s been a year, go to look for something and go, 'I don’t have that anymore I had that before the fire.'"

It took Harris nine months to get a new home.

"Even though we’ve been in since September, I didn’t feel at home," she said. "I didn’t feel like it was my home. There was nothing in the home, even though it’s brand new, new furniture — new things on the wall, nothing was mine. It’s starting to feel like mine."

Harris was not alone in her loss. More than 70 other mobile homes were destroyed here. People in the community said aside from the fire, one of the hardest things to deal with was watching strangers come into their backyards.

"It’s the lookie-loos, 'Oh, lets see what happened,' and had no idea ... my husband standing there in the middle of what used to be our bedroom and there’s nothing there and people just driving by checking it out. It’s like, this is a private thing. That’s why we kind of closed off the community.

"We had to tell them you can’t come in, it’s private property," Raia said. "You feel violated, invaded."

There are still reminders of what happened a year ago around the country club. Some burned trees and homes that need touch-up paint, but most of it has been cleaned up. Raia said A few homes still need to go in and some landscaping is in the works.


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Matt Hoffman
General Assignment Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI am a general assignment reporter for KPBS. In addition to covering the latest news and issues that are relevant to the San Diego community, I like to dig deeper to find the voices and perspectives that other media often miss.

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